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To see Houston Comets guard Cynthia Cooper yell out some comical boast in the locker room or enliven the team's shootaround before Sunday's big game against the New York Liberty by expertly mimicking the herky-jerky moves of the Liberty's halftime dancers was to see no hint of the sobering story that has been unfolding in Cooper's life away from basketball, out of public view. Those clues surface in subtle ways.
Sometimes it's the pink ribbon that Cooper wears on her uniform to signify her support for a group advocating more funding for breast-cancer research. Other times it's the way she hurries into the Houston locker room after each road game to call her mom, Mary Cobbs, who suffers from the disease. Every once in a while, Comets coach Van Chancellor quietly moves back practice by half an hour because Cooper has asked for time to take Mary for chemotherapy or another battery of tests. Point guard Kim Perrot, Cooper's close friend and her roommate on the road, says that every so often the two of them stay up late talking about faith, about holding on to hope, about why bad things sometimes happen to good people. Perrot says, "The thing I always tell her is, 'Coop, when I put myself in your place, I don't know how you do it all.' "
It has almost been a relief for the 34-year-old Cooper to be on the court, where she is a stone-cold scorer who exudes the cocksure attitude, You can't stop me. Opposing teams rarely do. At week's end she was the WNBA's leading scorer, averaging 22.4 points for the Comets, who on Sunday took over first place in the Eastern Conference from New York with a 70-55 win. Cooper, who had a game-high 17 points, has emerged as the top contender to win the fledgling league's first MVP award, to be announced on Aug. 27.
Although she is loquacious around her teammates, Cooper can be reticent about herself and her off-the-court burdens. Unless you ask her, you might never know that she has escorted her mom through every stage of her cancer treatment this year, just as you might never know that Cooper has helped raise a niece and nephew and is in the process of adopting another nephew.
In Cooper's mind, playing through the thigh bruise that has bothered her for the past few weeks or returning to play on the right ankle she sprained badly late in Sunday's game pales next to what her mother has endured. Cobbs, 60, learned she had breast cancer in March, just weeks after she and Cooper were overjoyed to hear that the WNBA had assigned Cooper to play in Houston, their adopted hometown. At least Cooper would be home enough to help care for her mother. Says Cooper, "It was unbelievable how it's all worked out."
In more ways than one. As the WNBA's inaugural season began, better known players such as the Los Angeles Sparks' Lisa Leslie, the Liberty's Rebecca Lobo and the Sacramento Monarchs' Ruthie Bolton-Holifield were expected to become the league's brightest stars. But the 5'10" Cooper has unleashed a do-it-all game and outstripped her rivals. At week's end Cooper not only led the league in scoring but was also in the WNBA's top 10 in five other categories, ranking second in three-point shooting (43.7%); third in foul shooting (87.9%); fourth in assists (4.5); and fifth in steals (2.28 per game) and minutes played (35.3).
Beginning on July 18—just 24 hours after she and Chancellor had a motivational conversation in which he told her he was making her the Comets' undisputed go-to player—Cooper set the WNBA single-game scoring record three games in succession, with a 30-point night against Sacramento, a 32-point effort against the Phoenix Mercury and a 44-point barrage in a rematch with the Monarchs. All told, Cooper scored 30 or more points in seven of the 13 games Houston played after her chat with Chancellor. "And we won all seven," Chancellor notes. The surge helped slingshot the Comets (17-8) past fading New York (16-8) for the best record in the WNBA heading into the last week of the regular season.
"She's the best all-around player I've ever faced," Liberty guard Vickie Johnson said on Sunday, after Cooper had rebounded from a desultory two-point first half with 15 points in the second. "She can go left if you stop her from going right, and she goes right if you stop her from going left. She can shoot the three, she can drive and score or pass off. After seeing her for four games now, nothing she does surprises me. She always seems to have something up her sleeve."
Chancellor adds, "I'm not usually the sort of guy who campaigns for my own players. But if Cynthia doesn't get MVP this year, they might as well not give out the award."
With an exaggerated look of horror, Cooper says she doesn't want to talk about the MVP, lest she jinx herself or the Comets. More than individual glory, she says, the nearly concluded WNBA season has given her reason to reflect on her individual story: the teenage years she spent in a crime-ridden neighborhood in the Watts section of Los Angeles; the sacrifices her mother made to raise her and her seven siblings; the fact that her basketball career didn't begin until she was 16, and then only accidentally. "I just happened to be in the gym at my junior high school one day and saw this older girl come down the court, put the ball behind her back from her left to her right hand and then make a layup," Cooper says. "Up until then I had run track. But just like that I said, 'Oooh. Wow. I want to play like that someday.' "